We lost a local plantsman, innovator, historian and nursery industry icon last week when Jim Zampini, age 85, passed away in his sleep after a long battle with heart disease. A fusion of Italian and Hungarian ancestry, Jim grew up in Painesville in the 1930s and began working for local rose growers as a teenager. His father, Felix, opened his own nursery in 1946 when Jim was 14. When the family business expanded in 1957 with 25 acres in Perry, Jim joined the enterprise fulltime. In 1962 Jim assumed ownership of the company and renamed it Lake County Nursery Exchange. Ten years later LCNE purchased 300 acres from the world-famous Champion Nursery in Perry, but he did not stop there. More properties and production were added throughout the decade. In 1973 LCNE hosted one of the earliest Summer Field Days for Lake County Nurseryman’s Association (now Nursery Growers of Lake County Ohio) and a year later opened a retail garden center, Champion Garden Towne, on North Ridge Road. Over a number of years LCNE was changed to Lake County Nursery (LCN) and Jim continued to introduce and patent new plants. During the 1990s and 2000s Jim received many accolades for his efforts in the nursery industry, plant breeding and community engagement. Eventually Jim moved on to partner with his daughter, Maria, in UpShoot LLC, in order to focus on international plant breeding efforts. LCN continues under the direction and ownership of Jeff Hearn, Bob Pettorini (Jim’s son-in- law) and Joe Zampini (Jim’s son). UpShoot continues under Maria’s direction.
I did not know Jim until the last couple years when we corresponded on local nursery history. I put together a lunch for old-timers in February, 2015, at Hellriegels Restaurant in Painesville and scribbled illegible notes, trying to keep up with the lively conversation. On one page, under Jim’s initials, I wrote ‘900,000 roses’… but I cannot recall who raised them or where. Below that I jotted that the father of Don Shula, NFL football coach from Fairport, another Hungarian, was a rose grower? Did he raise 900,000 roses? Jim talked about the ‘blue willow’ that was grown in blocks around the county (we had a half-acre in the back of our nursery when I was growing up) to tie up roses and other plants for shipping. He talked about his friend Alex Zebhazy, founder of Red Mill Nursery (now owned by Loselys) and how they budded roses in the final days of Storrs & Harrison Nursery. He said Zeb was a left-handed budder and a ‘Hungarian Philosopher’. (eventually Zeb bequeathed $100,000 to begin the Lake County Historical Society). Other names popped up in my notes that are lost to me now… Jim Vizzard, Dick Hutton, Colaveccio and Cardina, Felix Pacheco. There was a nursery on Lane Road before Paul Otto’s run by Rube Hacker; his wife Dolly worked at Storrs & Harrison. There was a bootlegger on Hale Road that I would love to learn more about!
Four months ago I called Jim for help with an article about the history of our Summer Field Days. We talked for a while. I was happy when he mentioned one of my favorite stories about local nursery history: The Italian Woods. It was a tent camp on Bacon Road, across from Storrs & Harrison where Italian immigrants lived year-round in tents buried part-way into the ground. They had stoves for heat and raised chickens and goats for food, sometimes they clubbed rabbits. There were twenty four inhabitants when the camp was discontinued in 1939. Jim is a natural raconteur and he went on to describe the Hungarian Camp, a story new to me. The Hungarians lived in shacks off Bowhall Road, down by the FP&E railroad tracks, out of the wind, near a fresh water spring.
What a different world that was!
I assumed we would have time for more conversations, more opportunity to fill in my scribbled notes… more time for exploring this living link with another age, for learning about the nurseries of the past… the names, the voices, the aspirations and realities, how they passed the slow days and winter months at work in our chosen trade… more time to learn about all the planting and propagating… the people drawn by Jim’s remarkable and inspirational passion for plants.